Women, reproduction, and rejuvenation

I’m not really a children person. I know some people really are into having children and think that it’s the most wonderful thing in life, but I’m just not one of them. This is perfectly fine. Whether having children is a wonderful thing or not is a matter of opinion, and it is not true or false in an absolute sense. What’s more, it’s not necessarily set in stone forever: I don’t like the idea now, but I can’t be 100% sure I never will; conversely, people who love the idea now might not like it any more in the future.

However, having children is a bit more serious than a simple matter of personal taste. A child is not a toy or a dress that you buy and just put away if it turns out you don’t like it as much as you thought you would: It’s a living human being whom was brought into the world because of someone else’s intentions and/or actions, and it’ll need love and care for quite a while. For this very reason, I think you should have children only if you’re pretty damn sure you really want to and are prepared to do all it takes to raise them. It’s not an easy job, and if it turns out you hate it, you’ll probably end up doing it wrong, messing up the child’s life and your own in the process. This is true of women and men, though women definitely picked the shortest straw. I’ll tell you why I think so in a moment.

Even if you think you are ‘pretty damn sure’ that you want children, you could still be wrong for a number of reasons that aren’t necessarily your fault. If you do decide to have children and then realise you don’t like it, you have good 18+ years ahead of you of bearing with the consequences of your wrong decision. The decision to not have children is, in a sense, safer, because it can easily be undone: Later on, you can change your mind and have children. If you already did make a child, changing your mind about it will not undo the child. However, not having children is only marginally safer, because as things stand you can postpone parenthood only so long before it becomes impossible or impractical (again, especially if you are a woman). The bottom line is that the current state of affairs imposes you a risky choice—having or not having children—that cannot easily (or at all) be undone. Whatever you choose, you might wake up one day at age 60 and wonder how different your life could have been if you only had made a different choice—a choice that is now too late to make.

As I was saying, women got the worst end of the reproduction deal. Their fertility window spans from late teenage to late 30s, with a peak in their early 20s and a drop around age 35. Pregnancy is still possible after age 35, of course, but it gets increasingly more difficult, and eventually it becomes impossible. Late pregnancies are not recommended for health reasons, and taking care of a child when you’re no longer in your prime can be quite challenging. Men too experience similar problems: Their fertility, albeit longer, is not in top shape forever; having a child as an old man becomes hard—because something else doesn’t, among other reasons.

The fear of missing the baby train can easily push you into having a child, even if you’re not sure you really want it. Social pressure is another big factor at play here—at the cost of being redundant, especially for the ladies. As a man, I can only imagine how annoying it must be to be a woman in her 30s surrounded by people wondering why she hasn’t had any children yet. What is she waiting for? Well, perhaps she just doesn’t want any, and all she’s waiting for is the moment they’ll finally stop asking her about it. Just because all of her friends had children it doesn’t mean she should too, but I understand how social pressure might make her feel ‘abnormal’ and push her to be like all the other ‘normal’ women of the same age who already have churned out a baby or two. Hordes of mothers, fathers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers begging to have (grand-)grandchildren and/or nephews and nieces probably only make it worse.

I have no idea how many regretted pregnancies, if any, are effectively due to these factors, partly or wholly. I do know, though, that mothers who regret motherhood are a thing, to the point that a book was written about it. (Possibly not the only one.) They’re neither bad mothers, nor ‘abnormal’ women. They’re simply women who, for a reason or another, became mothers and ended up wishing they never had. There’s nothing wrong with them. Women don’t ‘have’ to like motherhood, and motherhood isn’t necessarily a ‘natural’ call for women.

Even though this lengthy introduction might make you think otherwise, this post isn’t about whether or not you should have a child, or when, or whether it is okay to regret motherhood. This post is about how rejuvenation biotechnologies can make all these issues moot.

If you’re already familiar with the concept of rejuvenation, you can safely skip to the next paragraph. If you’re not, I’ll briefly explain what we’re talking about here. Rejuvenation biotechnologies are an emerging class of drugs aimed at repairing or obviating the ‘damage’ your body inflicts to itself with time as a side-effect of its normal operations. The effect of a fully working rejuvenation platform would be that, whether you’re 50, 70, 80, or 150, your body looks, feels, and functions as though you were in your 20s; thanks to rejuvenation, your health would not decline with age. I’m not going to discuss here the details about what ageing is or how rejuvenation could be implemented; what matters is that we’re talking about existing, on-going medical research whose first clinical trials are about to begin (for example, those by Unity Biotechnologies and Ichor Therapeutics), and with some luck, it could become fully established science within few decades. If this is news to you, it probably sounds unbelievable or even scary; therefore, I ask you to set doubts aside for now, and take my word for it. I want to show you how these technologies have the potential to solve the issues I was talking about.

Whether you’ve heard about it or not, science is looking into ways to reverse menopause, or indefinitely postpone it, to allow older women to bypass biology and have a child. Recent studies suggest it might be possible to turn skin cells into egg cells, which would be a convenient way to get around the fact that women apparently run out of egg cells entirely around the time they hit menopause. Another possibility (and this is my guess), might be freezing some of your own egg cells when you’re 20 for later use. Whatever the means, the objective is to allow women to have children later than they otherwise could. According to Aubrey de Grey, the very scientist who is fostering the whole field of rejuvenation biotechs, we might soon be able to turn menopause on and off.

You probably think that a woman having a child in her 90s is a terrible idea, and under normal circumstances I would agree. But here we’re not talking about a 90-year-old woman as we would intend her today; we’re talking about a 90-year-old woman in a world where comprehensive rejuvenation therapies exist. In other words, this 90-year-old woman’s health would be the same as that of a typical 25-year-old; she would look like a 25-year-old and her body would feel to her as though she was still chronologically young. Put next to a woman who was actually in her 20s, you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s the 90-year-old.

Now, imagine what would be the advantages of combining rejuvenation therapies with the ability to reverse menopause, or even switch it on and off. I can think of a few.

  • No more rushed decisions. If there’s no expiration date on your fertility, you needn’t fear missing your chance to have a baby, and you don’t need to rush into it if you’re unsure.
  • Reduced social pressure. I’m not going to say that rejuvenation plus extended fertility would eliminate social pressure entirely. People might still (wrongly) think that there’s something wrong with a woman who hasn’t had children already by her 30s. However, I think this combo would considerably reduce social pressure: If you can have children at any point, you can give your pestering family their long-yearned-for grandkids at any point. Your parents can’t play the trump card of their impending death by old age to pressure you, because rejuvenated people don’t die of old age. They’re healthy as ever, with an indefinitely long lifespan ahead of them—which, by the way, probably means that becoming grandparents wouldn’t be their one and only goal left in life.
  • You can always start over. Say you decided to have children and ended up regretting it. Right now, once your kids are independent and you’re free to go back to your life as it was before parenthood, there generally isn’t much life left for you to go back to. Two, maybe three decades, and your health gets worse year after year. However, in a post-rejuvenation world, you’re not sick and decrepit after you children have grown up; you’re biologically young, healthy, and with no limit on how much you’ve got left to live. You can go back to your pre-parenthood life and make of it what you wish. On the other hand, if you loved having children, you can do it again. How old you are doesn’t matter. (Afraid of overpopulation? Read here.) Notice that this point applies to both men and women, for pretty much any choice they make. In a post-rejuvenation world, it’s never too late to change careers, to go back to studying, to start travelling, or to rethink your life entirely.
  • Longer life experience. As a rule of thumb, we’re much wiser in our old age, for obvious reasons. If we could have children in our 100s or later, we would have much more to give and teach to our children, and we could be much better parents. Younger generations would be able to benefit from the wisdom of older ones for much longer.
  • No unwanted or accidental pregnancies. If we really are going to be able to turn menopause on and off (which I don’t dare taking for granted), that’d pretty much be the ultimate contraceptive. For example, you could decide to keep it ‘switched on’ all the time, making any unwanted pregnancy virtually impossible, and ‘switch it off’ only when you want to have a baby. (Of course the ‘switch’ wouldn’t prevent STIs, for which old-school prevention methods would still apply.) This ability would also make the lives of victims of sexual abuse a little easier. Being raped is bad enough as it is, and I’d imagine that having to bear your rapist’s child is even worse. Having menopause ‘switched on’ would not heal the wounds or the devastating psychological effects of abuse, but it would prevent a horrible situation from becoming worse.
  • You can have the cake and eat it. Even though it is not advisable to do so, more and more women today are postponing their first pregnancy because there are other things they’d like to accomplish first. In a post-rejuvenation world, you could postpone pregnancy for as long as you like and dedicate yourself to whatever your priorities are, without making it any harder or unadvisable to bear a child.

There’s a small problem, of course: Rejuvenation isn’t here yet, and neither is the ability to switch menopause on and off. What’s worse, we’re not 100% sure that we’ll actually pull it off. As you read these lines, researchers all over the world are endeavouring to create a world where growing old doesn’t mean being sick and unable to have children any more. Their efforts might fail, but given the payoff, I think it is definitely worth trying.

If this is all new to you, you might be interested to know more in detail what rejuvenation is, or you might have some concerns about it that need an answer. If so, have a look at what ageing and SENS are, why ageing is a problem, and the Answers to objections section.